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International
Last Updated: July 27, 2007
Violence Erupts at the Reopened Lal Masjid
By Our Staff Writer

The violence erupted at the reopened Lal Masjid of Islamabad on July 27 when an Imam of another mosque, Maulana Mohammed Ashfaq, assigned by the Pakistan Government to lead the Friday prayers, reached there and tried to say ‘khutba’. Hundreds of protesters clashed with security forces and a nearby bombing killed 12 people, most of them Police, on July 27 during the reopening of Islamabad's Lal Masjid for the first time since a bloody army raid to oust Islamic militants from the complex.

The bomb struck the Muzaffar Hotel, in a downtown market area about a quarter mile from the mosque. Local television showed victims — many of them bleeding or badly burned, with their clothing in tatters — being carried from the wreckage to waiting ambulances.

Senior Interior Ministry official Javed Iqbal Cheema said 12 people were killed, including seven police, and 43 were wounded. The bombing came soon after police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters who had occupied the Lal Masjid complex during its reopening after the raid that left more than 100 dead.

Earlier the protesters occupied Pakistan's Lal Masjid on July 27, painting the walls in their original colour and wrecking the official reopening of the complex after a bloody army assault on militants. The protesters chased out the government-appointed Imam, Mohammad Ashfaq, who was meant to lead the first Friday prayers at Lal Masjid in Islamabad since the military operation there earlier this month that left more than 100 people dead.

Pakistan's Geo Television showed scenes of pandemonium inside the mosque, with dozens of young men in traditional Islamic clothing and prayers caps shouting angrily and punching the air with their hands. In an act of defiance to authorities' repainting of the mosque this week in pale yellow, protesters wrote "Lal Masjid" or "Red Mosque" in large Urdu script on the dome of the mosque. They also rose a black flag with two crossed swords. The crowd also shouted support for the mosque's former deputy imam and khatib, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who led the siege until he was shot dead by security forces after refusing to surrender. Before that, he was the public face of a vigilante, Islamic anti-vice campaign that had challenged the government's writ in the Pakistani capital.

Despite tight security, the students stopped Maulana Mohammad Ashfaq, taking up his position at the mosque's pulpit and used the microphone to deliver their own furious speeches against the government raid. "I was told everything would be peaceful. I was never interested in taking up this job and after today I will never do it," Ashfaq told AFP as he left with a police escort.

The students demanded the return of the mosque's Imam and Khatib, Abdul Aziz, who was caught trying to flee the compound in a woman's burqa during the siege and is now in jail awaiting trial on terror charges, Ashfaq said.

Armed police stood by on the street outside the mosque, but did not enter the courtyard where the demonstration was taking place. Islamabad commissioner Khalid Pervez said police forces did not want to go inside the mosque in case it led to a clash with protesters, but maintained the situation was under control. He said the reaction of Aziz's supporters was understandable and predicted things would calm down.

"It is an unfortunate situation," interior ministry spokesman Brigadier Javed Cheema told AFP. "We worked day and night to open the mosque for people to offer prayers but some people, mainly former students, are trying to create mischief," he said. "We are monitoring the situation and will take appropriate measures to restore order. Security forces have not gone inside," he added.

The unrest came a day after Religious Affairs Minister and late Ziaul Haq’s son Ijaz-ul Haq reopened the mosque, with bullet holes from the bitter fighting plastered over by workmen and damaged fans and lighting all repaired. The protests will raise questions about whether the government reopened the mosque too soon, with tensions still running high after the raid amid a wave of apparent revenge attacks by militants.

Friday's reopening was meant to help cool anger over the siege, which triggered a flare-up in militant attacks on security forces across Pakistan. Public skepticism still runs high over the government's accounting of how many people died in the siege, with many still claiming a large number of children and religious students were among the dead. The government says the overwhelming majority were militants.

Wahajat Aziz, a government worker who was among the protesters, said officials were too hasty in reopening the mosque.  "They brought an imam that people had opposed in the past," he said. "This created tension in the environment. People's emotions have not cooled down yet."

Security was tightened in Islamabad ahead of the mosque's reopening, with extra police taking up posts around the city and airport-style metal detectors put in place at the mosque entrance used to screen worshippers for weapons.

More than 200 people, many of them police and troops, have died in the spate of suicide attacks and rebel raids across the country, piling pressure on President Pervez Musharraf. Authorities earlier this week razed an Islamic girls' school and some staff quarters within the mosque compound that had been declared dangerous after the clashes.

The madarsa was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting and it was where Abdul Rashid Ghazi was shot dead by government commandos on July 10. The mosque's former clerics had demanded that the government impose Islamic Sharia law in the country, and had launched a vigilante campaign, including the abduction of Chinese workers whom they accused of prostitution.----With inputs from Yahoo News and Associated Press, July 27, 2007.

 


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